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What’s behind the bid to ban TikTok?

The app’s connection to China is a security concern for many, but others worry about the blowback from efforts to restrict its use.

TikTok has nearly 100 million users in the US.Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

It sounds like the sort of thing that happens in China — a law to ban a foreign-owned media company. But members of both US political parties are contemplating just such a law to shut down the hugely popular Chinese social video network TikTok. And the prospect has alarmed free speech advocates.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida unveiled legislation last week to block access to any social media network controlled by China, Russia, or several other nations ruled by authoritarian governments. But the title of the bill, the “ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act,” leaves no doubt of its primary target — CCP stands for the Chinese Communist Party.


“This isn’t about creative videos — this is about an app that is collecting data on tens of millions of American children and adults every day,” said Rubio. A similar bill, cosponsored by a Republican and a Democrat, has been filed in the US House of Representatives. Meanwhile, at least 19 US state governments have banned TikTok software from all government-owned devices.

Several public universities in these states, including the University of Oklahoma and Auburn University, have gone even further. They’ve entirely blocked TikTok access on their campus networks. Students and faculty needing a TikTok fix will have to use their personal wireless data accounts.

TikTok, like other social media companies, constantly monitors the activities of those who use the service, even tracking their physical locations. The company uses this data to figure out each user’s likes and dislikes, so it can generate a constant stream of videos that the viewer will love, as well as ads for products that users might buy.

It’s been a winning strategy for TikTok, the first Chinese social media company to achieve global success. The service, owned by the Beijing-based company Bytedance, has about a billion users worldwide, including nearly 100 million in the United States.


But the same information the company uses to tune its software is also a potential gold mine for Chinese intelligence agencies, which could use TikTok to monitor the locations of users and to ferret out intimate details of their lives. Analysts could use TikTok data to identify important people in government, business, or academia, and combine it with other information to create detailed dossiers of possible intelligence targets.

TikTok says it doesn’t share US user data with the Chinese government. However, a Chinese law requires that companies that do business in China must hand over whatever data the government demands.

There’s evidence that this is already happening. In June, BuzzFeed News reported on audio recordings of 80 TikTok internal meetings in which employees said that the company was sending information about US users to China. Then in October, Forbes reported on a team of TikTok employees who were tasked with tracking the exact locations of some US TikTok users.

Senator Josh Hawley during a hearing on TikTok on Capitol Hill in Washington in September.HAIYUN JIANG/NYT

In a speech earlier this month at the University of Michigan, FBI director Christopher Wray warned of another peril, saying that the presence of TikTok software on millions of smartphones could give China “the ability to engage in malicious cyber activity.” For example, intelligence agents might identify a high-value target who uses TikTok, then secretly activate their phone’s video camera or microphone to record that person’s activities.

Wray also warned that TikTok could be used to conduct “influence operations” like those run by Russia in an effort to tamper with US elections. TikTok’s algorithms could be tweaked to send US viewers a steady stream of pro-Chinese news stories, or videos that disparage the United States.


The Trump administration in 2020 issued an executive order to ban distribution of the TikTok smartphone app inside the United States unless Bytedance sold the business to a US-owned company. The Biden administration canceled that order. But since then, Democrats have joined Republicans in fretting over the TikTok threat.

“As painful as it is for me to say, if Donald Trump was right and we could’ve taken action then, that’d have been a heck of a lot easier than trying to take action in November of 2022,” Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said last month.

Bytedance first got a grip on the US market in 2017 when it acquired Musical.ly, a Chinese company that made a globally popular app that let people make their own music videos. US regulators offered no objections at the time. But in 2019, they began having second thoughts. That’s when a little-known federal agency called CFIUS — the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — began considering whether to force Bytedance to change its business practices or sell off Musical.ly, now rebranded as TikTok.

TikTok has proposed a deal that would put all US customer data at a location in Texas under the control of domestic software titan Oracle. But CFIUS officials still aren’t satisfied that the proposal goes far enough to protect US citizens’ privacy.


Meanwhile, civil libertarians say that a ban on TikTok would have a chilling effect on free speech. “It’s an attempt to censor by appealing to national security,” said Boston civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate. “In my view the most important principle is maintaining an open society.”

Will Duffield, policy analyst at the Cato Institute, agreed that TikTok could pose a genuine threat. But he noted that the kind of information that Chinese spies could obtain from the app is often available for purchase through commercial data brokers, who use apps to monitor the online activities of millions of people.

“In general, data is very leaky,” Duffield said. “We don’t have a great deal of control over the third-party data market.” Simply cracking down on TikTok is “like plugging one hole in a leaky sieve,” he said.

In addition, a ban on TikTok would vindicate the policies of repressive countries like China, who have long outlawed US social media services like Facebook. “I think this would encourage other countries to do the same with our tech firms,” said Duffield. And since US firms dominate in social media, this outcome “ultimately hurts us the most,” he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.